The Balance of Power In Modern American History


As a prelude to future posts on the state of the American political system, I’d like to start with a history lesson on the partisan and ideological balance of power in American politics.

Divided Government

Americans have gotten used to divided political control in recent years.

Seventeen of the twenty-four elections held from 1968 to 2014 have produced divided governments.

We have had (or will have) divided government for 44 years since the end of World War II.

Six of eight years under President Obama (January 2011-January 2017)
Two of eight years under George W. Bush (January 2007-January 2009)
Six of eight years under President Clinton (January 1995-January 2001)
All four year under President George H.W. Bush (January 1989-January 1993)
All eight years under President Reagan (January 1981-January 1989)
All eight years under President’s Nixon and Ford (January 1969-January 1977)
All eight years under President Eisenhower (January 1953-January 1961)
Two years under President Truman (January 1947-January 1949)

Republican Control

Republicans controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress for the first six years of George W. Bush’s eight year Presidency (from January 2001 to January 2007).  The Republicans didn’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate in any of those six years.  But, the U.S. Supreme Court was moderately conservative during those six years as well.

Prior to George W. Bush, the last time that Republicans controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress was in March of 1933 under Herbert Hoover.

Democratic Control

Democrats controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress:
* For the first two years of President Obama’s eight year term (from January 2009 to January 2011), with 59 seats in the U.S. Senate, one vote shy of a filibuster-proof majority.
* For the first two years of President Clinton’s eight year term (from January 1993 to January 1995),
with 57 seats in the U.S. Senate, two votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority.
* During President Carter’s four year term (from January 1977 to January 1981), with 61 seats in the Senate for the first two years and 58 seats in the Senate for the second two years.
* During the administrations of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (from January 1961 to January 1969) with 64 seats in the Senate for four of those years, with 66 seats in the Senate for two of those years, and with 68 seats in the Senate for two of those years.
* During the administration of President Truman from April 1945-January 1947 and from January 1949-January 1953).
* During FDR’s Presidency from March 1933 to April 1945.

Democrats held substantial and often filibuster-proof majorities during the administrations of Presidents Truman and FDR.

A Caveat on Realignment

This raw data, however, is somewhat misleading.  The Democratic party had deep internal divisions between conservative Southern Democrats and liberal Northern Democrats for most of the period from Truman’s administration through the Reagan administration.  The practical effect of this divide was that there were basically three political parties in Congress during this time period, none of which commanded a majority.

There were still significant numbers of conservative Democrats from the George H.W. Bush administration through the end of the Clinton Administration, although there are almost none today in Congress (although the Democratic party today still has a somewhat broader ideological spectrum than the Republican party does).

There were still many liberal leaning Republicans in the Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford administrations.  Liberal leaning Republicans had become politically irrelevant in the U.S. House by the Reagan administration, but a few moderate Republicans had lingered in the U.S. Senate until the 2014 election.

There are now basically no conservative Democrats and no liberal leaning or moderate Republicans in Congress, although there are some moderate Democrats in Congress.  The majority of Democrats in Congress are solidly liberal.  The majority of Republicans in Congress are very conservative.

The Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court was a decidedly conservative force during the Lochner era from roughly 1897 (the case of Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897)) to 1937, which is named after the case Lochner v. New York (1905), although Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which provided a legal foundation for Jim Crow era apartheid laws, is arguably a better landmark.

From roughly 1937 to 1953 (the later part of the Hughes Court, and all of the Stone Court and the Vinson Court), the U.S. Supreme Court was deferential to Congress and the President, not striking down liberal legislation as the U.S. Supreme Court did during the Lochner era, but not protecting individual liberties in the way that the U.S. Supreme Court has since the Warren Court era even since its shift to a moderately conservative majority in 1991.  The Court’s in this era established the enemy combatant doctrines during World War II that George W. Bush would use to fight the War on Terrorism and legally authorized Japanese internment during World War II.  On balance, this too was a moderately conservative court.

The liberal Warren Court (1953-1969) produced Brown v. Board of Education, and most of the precedents that gave effect to federal constitutional protections for criminal defendants.  The Burger Court (1969-1986), most notably, producing Roe v. Wade, but gradually took a more moderately liberal position that continued into the first few years of the mostly moderately conservative Rehnquist Court (1986-2005).  The Roberts Court (2005-Present) has also been moderately conservative.

The U.S. Supreme Court has had a moderately conservative majority since 1991 when Justice Thomas was appointed.  This checked Democratic power during the periods when Democrats were in control of the political branches during the administrations of Presidents Clinton and Obama.

Also, the modern Supreme Court, while its median vote is moderately conservative, has gained several members who are extremely conservative relative to the legal profession and other judges (i.e. Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito).  The current conservative-liberal balance of the U.S. Supreme Court is 5-4, which very moderately conservative Justice Kennedy as the swing vote.  So, a single liberal U.S. Supreme Court appointment could shift the U.S. Supreme Court to a liberal one, while a single conservative U.S. Supreme Court appointment could shift the U.S. Supreme Court from being moderately conservative to very conservative.

from Wash Park Prophet
via Denver News

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